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Saturday, May 18, 2024 — Houston, TX

Students, staffers talk work behind the scenes at Final Four

Jennifer Liu / Thresher

By Daniel Schrager     4/4/23 9:38pm

When San Diego State University guard Lamont Butler hit a corner jumpshot with time expiring – the first buzzer beater in Final Four history hit while trailing – to beat Florida Atlantic University in the men’s college basketball national semifinal, the Owls weren’t the only ones whose plans he foiled.

“I was on the FAU side supporting the [Conference] USA guys, trying to get a shot of the reaction if they won,” Ryan Freidin, a Duncan College junior, said. “I got the shot, it was just the reaction of sadness, disbelief.”

Freidin, who has worked as a photographer for Rice Athletics for three years, spent the weekend taking video of the Final Four for the NCAA’s social media. He stood courtside as SDSU took on Rice’s conference-mates and namesake, making their first trip to Houston since a March 2 visit to Tudor Fieldhouse. He watched as, like that night, FAU started fast, although their 40-33 halftime lead didn’t approach the 29-point lead they had built a month earlier. Even as the Aztecs chipped away at the deficit, a slew of missed free throws and second chance opportunities helped the Owls hold on to a narrow lead, before Butler’s heroics made the game an instant classic.

“I was so consumed in the moment that I didn’t know really what was going on,” Freidin said. “All of a sudden I’m there. You hear the buzzer, shot goes in. I didn’t know who shot it or where they shot it from. SDSU guys are running everywhere. FAU guys are sad. And I went back and I actually got the entire sequence on my phone and my camera which is cool.”

Freidin wasn’t the only person to make like Miss Frizzle and cruise on down Main Street to NRG Stadium over the weekend. As one of four host schools, along with the University of Houston, Texas Southern University and Houston Christian University, Rice sent students and athletic department staff to help the NCAA stage the event. The Rice Athletics facilities and communications teams spent the entire weekend on hand along with members of the marketing team and athletic trainers. According to Dan McGarry, Rice’s associate athletic director for facilities, event management, and capital projects, Rice Athletics sent roughly 60 employees to work the event.

“We had some people that were locker room attendants,” McGarry said. “We had some greeters and escorts which would take the teams to and from walking onto the court. My facility staff overall was here every single day last week. I think we probably put in about 85 to 90 hours last week, not including [Monday].”

Dean Miller, the associate athletic director for sports medicine and performance, said that Rice’s trainers were responsible for all medical needs outside of the court itself.

“We were taking care of all the hydration issues for everything from the media room, the bands, the teams, the locker rooms,” Miller said. “And then coordinating, making sure that there was a physician available – orthopedic, general physician and a cardiologist for games [and] practices.”

Rice’s involvement extended beyond just providing staff. The cheer team and pep band performed at the week’s festivities. The sport management department even offered a class, taught by Tom Stallings, in conjunction with the NCAA who brought in weekly guest speakers from all four host schools.

“[The NCAA] thought it’d be really neat, because there’s so many jobs on the business side of sports … they wanted to give students at the host institutions an opportunity to learn about the business side of the Final Four,” Stallings said. “Students have been working at the media center … NRG Stadium, and at some of the community events … working at the music festival that’s been playing at Discovery Green the last four days.”

The class consisted entirely of freshmen, but upperclassmen secured roles as well. Quincy Olivari, a Hanszen College senior who plays guard for Rice’s men’s basketball team, said when Stallings approached him about working in media coordination, he accepted.

“He said, ‘Well, we’ll put you down as long as you’re not playing,’” Olivari said.

Freidin said he knew he wanted to work the event before even learning that Rice would be involved.

“Last year, when I heard about the Final Four coming to Houston, I actually made a tweet last year in March, and I said, ‘I’m calling you right now, I’m gonna be working the men’s Final Four when it comes to Houston next year,’” Freidin said.

None of the other games provided the excitement of the first one. Late Saturday, the University of Connecticut cruised past the University of Miami 72-59, before giving the Aztecs the same treatment two nights later. An early SDSU lead was quickly erased, and UConn pulled ahead by 14 going into halftime. The Aztecs narrowed the deficit to five with as many minutes remaining, giving FAU’s players flashbacks wherever they were. But a 7-0 run made sure the ending would be uneventful. 

“To be so close to the action is amazing,” Olivari said. “Most of the time I’m watching it on TV, so to be so close and to be in this atmosphere is amazing, and it’s a very surreal moment.”

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